Q: I have been doing yoga for four years and still can’t do an elbow balance. I collapse by going forward until my head hits the wall. I don’t feel it is lack of strength as I can do Headstand and Handstand. —Shirley Mahoney
Lisa Walford’s reply:
In Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), you have a longer fulcrum from the hand to the shoulder, so you can depend on momentum to kick up. In Sirsasana (Headstand) you have a broader base with the forearms and the crown of the head on the floor, so the shoulder muscles get additional support from the upper back muscles, which makes it easier to get up. But keep in mind that even if you can get up in Headstand, the integrity of alignment in the neck can be severely compromised if there is inadequate lift in the armpit and instability in the shoulder girdle. How you get up is as important as being there!
In Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Stand or Elbow Balance), the actions required of the shoulder are confined to a smaller area, which challenges the flexibility and stability of the shoulder girdle directly. When viewed from the side, the optimal placement should be an even column from the base of the pose through the upper arm, armpit, shoulder, torso, pelvis, and legs. That is, the pose should not collapse in the armpits and then compensate by bending in the low back. Sound familiar–the banana shape?
From your hands and knees, face a wall and place your forearms on the floor. Place a belt or strap just above your elbows so that your forearms remain parallel to each other and shoulder-width apart. Set a block between your hands. These props will help you keep the chest open when you kick up. They’ll also help you to get the stability you need from the serratus anterior, a key muscle that attaches the shoulder blades to the back ribs and from which you can properly distribute weight through the shoulder girdle into the back.
Keep your shoulders in a vertical line directly above the elbows, draw the shoulder blades onto your back, and straighten your legs. You will be in a shortened Downward-Facing Dog with your forearms on the ground. While pressing down into the elbows and the forearms, draw your upper back (the thoracic spine) in toward the chest and slowly walk your feet toward your hands until you get a vertical lift from the elbows all the way up through the shoulders, ribs and waist. Stay in this preliminary stage for several breaths to reinforce the stability and length in the shoulders and armpits. If you have the flexibility in the upper back and the armpits can yawn and open, then bring one leg slightly in front of the other and kick up.
While kicking up, maintain the 90-degree angle between the forearm and the upper arm by pressing the center of the forearm into the floor and lifting the upper arm off the forearm. This will help keep you from collapsing toward the wall.
By setting up properly and carefully studying how you go into a pose, you will better identify what needs strength or stability and where you need to elongate and open. Like pruning a garden and watching it flourish, practice with vigilance and you will find that your yoga will become more refined.
Lisa Walford is a senior intermediate Iyengar Yoga instructor and has been teaching for more than twenty years. She is one of the directors of the Teacher Training Program at Yoga Works, in Los Angeles. She has served on the faculty of the 1990 and 1993 National Iyengar Yoga Conventions and studies regularly with